Watching this emotional reunion film, a viewer might could come to a certain special feeling
Deadwood: The Movie
Credit: Warrick Page/HBO

So now thus an ending, biblical and electric. Deadwood: The Movie aired Friday, nigh 13 years after the HBO series faded to rumor. 2006 turned to 2019 like somebody snapped their fingers, and creator David Milch reflected the long passage of time in his screenplay. The characters reconvened in a camp long since citified. The year was 1889 and the day was Friday, though Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) thought it Tuesday. The film covered one hectic weekend: a birth, a death, a funeral, a wedding. Christ Himself only ever accomplished the first three.

Obvious problems with Deadwood: The Movie, necessitating minor admonition and a complete plot exposition. (Watch the movie before reading further — and do please watch it.) The radical drama returned as a conventional cast reunion. The mood was convivial, some victories cheap. George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) returned outright Satanic, nudging Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) into two separate standoffs in the thoroughfare. Whereas dear old Al softened under a paternal glow, a whoremonger too kindly to sample his own product. These were ongoing projects of season 3, no doubt, when every citizen allied against Hearst, whose amalgamation and capital morally paled Al’s murder habit. Deadwood always had a fragile acquaintance with the history books — but hard to believe any reality where Marshall Seth Bullock throws battered Senator George Hearst in jail.

Anyhow, that critical business over with: This movie is a gift, and a fond farewell. I love Milch’s writing, his loquacious waterfall. I can only ever catch three-quarters of what his characters say, and there were whole A-plots of the original Deadwood I barely caught on first viewing. (I figured out what “Yankton” was sometime mid-season 2.) But the language is so joyful, and the performances so committed. How lovely to see Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert) returning in the opening scene, already speechifying to the trees. Here are her first words, the first Deadwood dialogue since the Bush administration, as best as I can render them:

Ten years gone forshyoure not selfsame hell afore I thought to lay me down and rise no more.

Necessary apologetic [sic] addended to that and all quotations in this review. And I worry that some notion that Deadwood dialogue is the TV equivalent to Joycean prose has perhaps pushed away some potential viewers whose eyes glaze over at the phrase “Joycean prose.” Be not afraid, potential viewers! The original series is one of the great artistic endeavors of this century. And Deadwood: The Movie touched perfection early on, in a scene between Hearst and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie).

Hearst needed Utter’s land for his own economic purposes: Imagine, an American public servant pursuing his private capitalist interests, shame, shame! From his plot, Utter could see the long lineup of telephone poles Hearst was building across the wilderness. And Hearst was offering $4,000 even, cash money, for a property whose market value stood at $3,500.

They cut a pair of figures there, Hearst with his top hat standing tall, Utter sitting creekside knee-high with his pant legs pulled up over his socks. Charlie recalled a childhood lesson:

My father taught his boy — beat hell into him, might maybe be more accurate — how if early enough on you credited a settlement’s what’s coming, bought acreage reasonable, developed them sensible, hung onto them until the market come right, come the day you might could wake up and find you made yourself a respectable investment.

Pure poetry in the perambulations: “might maybe be,” talk of acreage and investments amidst one old man’s remembering his own old man’s violence. Sell, Charlie, sell whispered the wisdom of elders. But he wasn’t done talking; nobody on Deadwood ever was. “A man might could come to a certain special feeling,” he said. “Partial, say, to a piece of ground. A river bending through the forest, like so.”

And then Utter told Hearst he got motherf—ed in the thoroughfare. To which Hearst responded: “Proffering that assessment, sir, is hardly your proper bailiwick.” But the dreamy sweetness of Utter’s words stuck with me. Callie has a marvelous face, rocky as the mountains, and yet he seemed to grow younger the longer he talked. Easy to guess that Charlie knew he was signing his own death warrant, refusing Hearst. Easy to imagine that knowledge freed him even more. Late in the episode, the wounded Samuel (Franklyn Ajaye) recalled Charlie’s final moments, before Hearst’s cowards gunned him down:

Mr. Utter seemed to me a different man, like a weight come off his shoulders… singing he was at the end, Marshall. “A Walk in the Valley.” Joyful to hear and behold. Singing.

The film found room for Deadwood’s trademark invective, unleashing a very pregnant Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) on an early diatribe against Hearst. (It took around nine minutes for someone to say “c—sucker.”) It was moving to see Seth and Martha (Anna Gunn) living in their happy home with children too young to remember their long-dead brother William. Jane and Joanie (Kim Dickens) fought briefly, then walked off happy. Alma (Molly Parker) returned with a grown-up Sofia (Lily Keene). Alma and Seth had brief, only-ever-implicit rekindling moments. Some of these sequences worked, some felt wedged in, some felt like longer ideas squeezed into a scene or two.

Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis leant impossible poignance to Al’s own health problems, and to this whole project. The real Deadwood burned in 1879, historical reality that beckoned the original series toward conclusive brimstone. This movie skipped over the fire straight into rebuilt civilization — and ended with snowfall, everyone frozen one sparkling night. Nostalgic, surely, and I wonder what sort of ending Milch would’ve crafted years ago, if there was a version of Deadwood that ended with more complications than “Everybody We Like vs. Hearst.”

But the scope of Deadwood: The Movie won me over. I loved seeing Bullock and Swearengen still not quite getting along, the former a man of justice prone to unhinged outbursts of chaotic violence, the latter an amoral sinner always striving to maintain order. (“You ever think, Bullock, of not going straight at a thing?” “No.”) I shed a tear near the end watching Bullock arriving in the doorway of his house. Director Daniel Minahan’s framing suggested John Wayne at the very end of The Searchers. That film ends with Wayne wandering away from the open door, outward again from domesticity. Whereas Bullock told his wife, “I’m home,” and kissed her. How lovely to hear Jewel (Geri Jewell) sing Al beyond with “Waltzing Matilda.” All Milch’s HBO work — don’t forget the magnificent oddities John From Cincinnati and Luck — has a fascination with communal energy, tracking feelings and moods across a sprawling cast. So Samuel told Bullock about Charlie Utter singing right as Jewel started singing to Al. So Bullock held Samuel’s hand mere minutes before Trixie held Al’s.

The very first image of Deadwood: The Movie shows a train railroading toward a onetime frontier town. It’s a visual shock on multiple levels. Narratively, it marks the arrival of 19th-century transportation technology. For us viewers, that image reflects 21st century film technology, the train rendered in not-quite-convincing CGI. I guess there must have been digital effects in the original Deadwood, but nothing this garish — and you remember that the network behind Deadwood just concluded a massive special-effects drama, digital dragons burning digital zombies.

Easy enough to link Milch to Al Swearengen, but I wonder if in writing his screenplay, Deadwood’s creator felt closest to Charlie Utter. Here comes George Hearst, talking all about modernity’s advance, linking this remote frontier to the wider world via the glories of communication. Hearst as Silicon Valley, discuss. Hearst as Netflix, ponder. Hearst as The Boss’s Boss at HBO Demands Narrative Optimization for the Mobile Environment, gag.

Hearst himself had a soliloquy around this business, delivered impromptu to E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson). “Every business, Mr. Farnum, in this territory thrives as a direct result of communication. Now, we’ve no say as to the pace of modernity’s advance. I myself am merely its vessel, a humble foot soldier.” He blathered on, but Farnum wasn’t listening. Advanced age caused wanton leakage in his bladder, see — possibly Milch’s roundabout way of pissing on modernity. Goodness: This film, a product of AT&T, featured a key character heroically burning down telephone poles!

“Seems I’m the lone holdout on the path of progress,” Utter told Hearst. He held out until progress killed him. Possible to squint and see Deadwood: The Movie as a eulogy for the whole 2000s HBO Renaissance, an era of dramatic television that looks very distant now. Possible to poke holes in that phase and its uneasy influence, the dull vogue for brutality, the worshipful iconography of Difficult Men, the ensuing decade of doltish demi-Deadwoods full of grim heroes and lusty hookers. Always easy to mourn the future, too, all digital trains and advanced communications wired straight into your brain.

But there are still — still! — rivers bending through forests, joyful to hear and to behold. “Let’s figure out what to do with that land,” Alma told Sofia. Yes, let’s. B+

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